Kevin Sneddon’s first game as Union’s head coach was a success: The Dutchmen edged Niagara, 5-3, in the first round of the JCPenney Classic in Orono, Maine.
The next night, Sneddon lost his first game when Maine downed Union, 6-1.
There were more games like that for Sneddon during that 1998-99 season. The Dutchmen went 3-26-3, the worst season ever in their Division I history.
Since then, though, Sneddon has been a big success.
He improved the Dutchmen over his next four years, and in his final season, 2002-03, the team earned home ice for the first time in the ECAC Hockey tournament.
Now, Sneddon is on the verge of something even greater. He has guided Vermont to within two games of its first NCAA hockey title.
The Catamounts are in the Frozen Four for the first time since 1996 and will face Hockey East rival Boston University in the semifinals Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at the Verizon Center in Washington. The winner plays the winner of the first semifinal, between Bemidji State and Miami (Ohio) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Sneddon, who had joined Union as an assistant coach in 1993, became the Dutchmen’s head coach when Stan Moore suddenly resigned in the summer of 1998 after two years on the job. Sneddon took over a team that went 6-22-4 the previous season.
His first season as head coach was rough, but it didn’t make him wonder why he accepted the job. However, he had to learn patience.
“I was a young coach at Union at that time, and I wanted to win right away, but never realizing that it’s going to take some time to build it,” said Sneddon, who has a 105-92-31 record in six seasons at Vermont, and a 155-191-49 record in 11 years as a head coach. “In those days, we didn’t have a lot of resources. You learn to work hard and try to outwork people. I don’t forget those days for one minute because they’re very important in my growth as a coach.
“Even through those tough years, you have to believe in what you’re doing. It doesn’t always seem possible. I’d like to think I’m not that different as a person as I was back then. You learn to try to treat people the right way and respect your players. You certainly get frustrated at times, and that comes out the wrong way at certain points. You hope you don’t regret those moments too much.”
Vermont associate head coach John Micheletto, who served as Sneddon’s assistant coach at Union that first year and was an assistant with Sneddon under Moore, never saw a change in Sneddon’s demeanor.
“I don’t think there was ever a question from anybody, from Kevin himself down to the players and the support staff, that he was in over his head,” Micheletto said. “Everyone believed in him as a person, and in his message and his system at the time. Kevin’s certainly very grounded, is confident in what he does and most everything he does comes from the heart. There’s no way that can be wrong at that point.”
In Sneddon’s second season at Union, the Dutchmen made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. They went back to the playoffs in 2001. They just missed the playoffs in 2002, but their 13-13-6 record was their first non-losing season since 1997. After guiding Union to its home-ice advantage in the postseason in 2003, Sneddon was hired by Vermont and replaced behind the bench in Schenectady by Nate Leaman.
“We were able to accomplish some small steps at Union,” Sneddon said. “Nate’s done a great job of continuing that and deserves a lot of credit for how far Union’s come.”
Ironically, this is the 20-year anniversary of Sneddon winning an NCAA title with Harvard. He was a freshman defenseman on the Crimson.
“I feel old,” Sneddon joked.
Sneddon thought there would be more chances to win national championships, but they never materialized.
“When I was a player at Harvard, the program was pretty hot at that time,” Sneddon said. “That was my only experience in the national tournament. We fell just short a couple of years after that before all the attention was on the math of it. It was more by committee opinion.
“It was a special time in my career. I’m just looking forward to bringing our guys to be able to enjoy that experience, as well.”
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